ADVANCE BASE Musical short stories. Jeffrey Marini

OWEN ASHWORTH has written songs about bank robbers, obsessive recluses, and small-town riot grrrls. In his songs, Ashworth's characters have fallen in love outside of punk shows, wrecked cars, had abortions, written suicide letters, and celebrated Christmas in a wide variety of disheartening ways.

“A lot of the characters in the songs will be kicking around in my head for a while before I figure out the right way to tell the story,” says Ashworth, the Chicago songwriter behind the Advance Base moniker. “It’s sometimes years before the very basic seed of an idea ends up as a finished song.”

For most of the last 20 years—13 of those as Casiotone for the Painfully Alone and six as Advance Base—Ashworth has created curious portraits of fictional lives. His songs are most commonly odd tragicomedies that seem to share little with typical approaches to songwriting.

“Writing is a very visual thing for me,” Ashworth says. “When I was young and I imagined doing creative things, making movies was the thing that was most attractive to me. I guess songwriting kind of came out of that—[for me] it’s very character-based, very situational.”

Ashworth, who interned at the Portland Mercury in 2002, draws inspiration from varied and often unlikely sources. He regularly references horror movies as a catalyst for his songwriting, and his list of current artistic influences extends from novelist Charles Portis to playwright Annie Baker, folk-country songwriter John Prine to Midwestern short fiction author Lorrie Moore. “Lorrie Moore is a huge, huge influence on me,” Ashworth says. “There’s this real funny, bittersweet quality to her writing that I love. She just gets these moods that are just exactly what I want, exactly what I’m going for in my songs.”

The characters that populate the most recent Advance Base full-length, 2015’s Nephew in the Wild, are down on their luck and desperate, stuck in dead-end towns or lost in the world. Their stories are told over electric piano, Omnichord, and drum machine backdrops—sparse pop soundscapes that sit slightly outside of any specific time period or clear influences. And along the way Ashworth works like a film director, summing up the bleak absurdity of his characters’ lives through passing snapshots—sleeping on a train with a lap full of laundry, driving around in a rusted Chevy Nova with the window busted out, a little girl with a goldfish in her mouth.

Positioned alongside the stuck characters are a cast of larger-than-life enigmas attempting to break out: The boy who opens a portal to Hell on his parents’ kitchen wall, the girl who burns the old high school down, the woman who leaves town without a trace. Ashworth says he was “thinking a lot about pre-internet high school and junior high school experiences. And the way you hear about people and the way they become these vague legends. They get very much exaggerated to kind of mythical proportions.”

While it’s easy to imagine the characters in Nephew in the Wild’s songs interacting or being somehow loosely associated, any connections between them remain mysterious and below the surface. “On the record there tends to be a lot of interrelation between the songs that’s not really made explicit,” Ashworth admits. But he’s not going for a cohesive epic, instead preferring to work in what he calls “daisy-chained vignettes”—his version of interlinked short stories or connected film shorts. “Something about the idea of the full concept record that tells one story is not as appealing to me,” he says. “I like it being a little dream-like and open-ended.”